Have Cats’ wheels come off for Cody?
IF Kilkenny's famously stoic hurling boss Brian Cody was ever remotely affected by statistics he would be feeling more than a little twitchy after last Sunday's league defeat to Galway.
In Cody's 12 years in charge, defending champions Kilkenny have won the National Hurling League five times and those titles have usually coincided with losing just one game in the group stages.
In 2006, the Cats didn't even lose one game en route to the NHL decider, coming closest in their draw with Limerick, whom they subsequently beat in the final. In 2006 and 2009, they scored league and championship doubles and last year's epic league final with Tipperary was a precursor of an equally thrilling All-Ireland decider.
As Cody said in his autobiography last year: "Others might like to downgrade it (the league) but I have always regarded it as being vitally important. It's the only title on offer at this time of year, so why not do you level best to win it?"
So what are people to make of the fact that Kilkenny have already lost three league games this year, one more than they have ever previously lost in any single season under Cody?
If you throw in defeats by Offaly and Laois in the pre-season Walsh Cup and Shield, Kilkenny's hurlers have actually lost five games so far in 2010.
With matches against Limerick and Waterford to come, their hopes of defending their league title have evaporated as they lag in the lower half of the table, behind Cork, Galway, Tipperary and Waterford.
For a team tipped to make history by winning a fifth All-Ireland in a row, it is a surprising state of affairs, especially given Cody's attitude to the league. Under his management, Kilkenny have embodied the principle that league success can be a platform for All-Ireland glory, not an impediment to it, as is believed in some quarters.
Last season was a case in point. After being lucky enough to nick past Limerick in their league opener and then losing to Waterford by four points, some big hurling counties suffered a vicious backlash as the Cats bared their claws.
First Galway were dispatched by eight points, then they rattled five goals past a shell-shocked Tipperary at Nowlan Park.
Next came a 13-point defeat of Clare and then anyone who thought they might take it handy on Cork -- who had Denis Walsh in his first game in charge and were just regrouping after their winter of discontent -- were sorely mistaken. A ritual 27-point slaughter of the Rebels at Nowlan Park followed; a 4-26 to 0-11 scoreline that marked a 68-point cumulative winning tally in four league games in a row.
No surprise then that people are wondering if Kilkenny's worst league form in Cody's long reign is in fact an indicator that they are on the wane. The conspiracy theorists are already out in force, figuring that the five-in-a-row is such a mammoth challenge that Kilkenny have eased off the league throttle so that they can hit the turbo-boosters come summer.
The reality is that they have been short a lot of personnel this spring. Eddie Brennan has only made one appearance and is now injured and, of their 2009 All-Ireland starters, they were also without JJ Delaney, Michael Kavanagh, Derek Lyng, Richie Hogan and All Star forwards Eoin Larkin and Henry Shefflin last Sunday.
Much was made of the fact that the Ballyhale contingent, apart from Shefflin, were back last week but Martin Comerford, TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly all only came off the bench last September, even if they would probably have started for any other county in the championship.
Of the newer faces used in the league, John Mulhall has definitely proved he is ready to move up, with Paddy Hogan and Niall Walsh also making a case for themselves. One surprise is that Noel Hickey, despite being fit enough to be on the bench in recent weeks, has yet to be used.
Whether or not Kilkenny have subconsciously eased off the league gas or if, in fact, everyone else now ups their game against them is a moot point -- the real question is whether it will have any effect on Kilkenny ambitions later in the season.
NHL GAMES LOST UNDER CODY
Two: Cork and Galway (semi-final)
Two: Waterford and Wexford
Two: Cork and Clare (semi-final)
Two: Waterford and Galway
None: Drew with Limerick
Two: Tipperary and Waterford (final)
One: Tipperary (semi-final)
2010 (to date)
Three: Tipperary, Cork and Galway